You Want Me to Do What?By Cynthia K. DeLozier
Impending budget cuts and imbalanced enrollments many times impose the placement of multi-grade classes upon a school, the teachers, and the students. Without adequate support in place, such an assignment can be tremendously difficult. Academic achievement and individual growth can be attained through intensive, strategic planning, team teaching and teacher collaboration, professional development, and careful scheduling.
It takes a village, but the success can happen.
You arrive at your school several weeks before the school year begins because your principal called needing to talk to you. You know your evaluations have been good from previous years and you have a good, yet professional relationship with your principal and administrators. Your principal greets you and welcomes you to sit down. As he begins, he communicates the difficulty the district is having with the budget limitations this year, and how the number of students enrolling in your pre-assigned grade level is at a number greater than allowed by your district for one classroom, but not enough for two complete classrooms. You now recognize the climax of the conversation; you are being asked to teach a multi-grade class this year. How will you ever get in all the planning that needs to happen for good lessons? How in the world will you ever provide opportunity for each student to succeed? How much support will you get? You answer, “You want me to do what?”
Multi-grade classrooms, also referred to as combination grade classrooms, are becoming more prevalent in schools today in the United States. Decisions to assign teachers and students to multi-grade classes can be based on imbalanced or inadequate enrollments. Teachers usually shy away from teaching multi-grades for several reasons. However, success for students and teachers in combination class can be attained with strategic planning. Teachers, administrators, and school districts fear not meeting high academic standards because of multi-grade classes. Another fear is the mandate of meeting Annual Yearly Progress (AYP). Most instruction today is primarily research-based, but research has not resulted in positive nor negative findings of multi-grade classes. (Son, Spradlin, & Plucker) “Unfortunately, in depth, comprehensive research on combination classes is nearly nonexistent.” (Mason & Doepner III, p. 160) Getting over the initial fear of what many consider a biased nightmare, and beyond the lack of knowledge pertaining to multi-grade classes, implementation of good instruction can produce effective and high cognitive learning for all students.
Every Teacher Has a Multiple-level Class
Criteria for students being placed in the class should be one of the first considerations.
There is no student on the same academic, social, behavioral, or socioeconomic level as another. Classrooms, single grade or multi-grade, should evidence the diversity of population represented in the school body, academically, socially, and behaviorally. Though many administrators, districts, and teachers elect to place high academic achieving students in combination classrooms, or students with little to no behavioral issues, it has not been proven to be the most beneficial to that class, nor the school. In fact, research findings have demonstrated little advantage, if any, in multi-grade classes specifically comprised of higher achieving students. (Mason & Burns, 2) Differentiated instruction is necessary in any single-grade classroom and should occur because of various ability levels, diverse cultures, behavioral issues, and age-level differences, based on individual student needs. A multi-grade classroom should mirror this same type of student diversity as well as differentiated instruction based on the needs of the students. If the multi-grade class is assigned certain types of students, an imbalance occurs in the school as a whole.
The combination classrooms involve integrated curriculum, learning stations, and differentiated instruction. However, this should not be extraordinary compared to the single-grade classroom. When teaching a combination class, the teacher should realize extra planning is involved, but if well-prepared, the lessons will run smoothly.
Implementing the Plan
Combination classes are not exempt from the accountability of No Child Left Behind, (NCLB), nor for state standards and curriculum. Because of this, there are times the teacher will need to provide lessons separately for core content according to the grade levels involved. However, the upper grade curriculum will frequently be a matter of continuation from the lower grade level providing opportunity for the upper grade students to receive review if needed before their lesson is taught. Hence, the opportunity to assign students to this class that may perform at a lower ability level is beneficial. By doing so, they receive the review, or re-teaching needed without having the stigma of being retained. Intricate planning is necessary for success, but once the initial stages of planning have begun, continuing the pattern does not have to be difficult.
Another important aspect to keep in mind when planning is the expectations: what skill is expected to be mastered, what skill is expected to be engaging but not mastered, and what is expected as beginning the skill. All grades involved in the combination class assessed. To continue the process of planning, the teacher should align the standards across the grade levels: beginning, engaging, and mastering the learning. By looking at these three criteria across the grade level standards, the teacher can then, align lessons according to the beginning level of skills to both grades, with the beginning level of standard to both grades, assigning activities applying the appropriate skills to the lower grade, continuing the lesson to an engaging level or mastering level with the upper grade. This can truly benefit both grade levels because of review access for students in the upper grade and challenging opportunities for those students in the lower grade.
Teachers support differentiation in a variety of forms, including learning stations, multi-tiered groupings, and same-ability groupings. The cross over in the grades does not have to be a protrusion of obvious academic abilities, but can successfully integrate lessons on academic levels without inhibiting and embarrassing students because of their abilities. Groupings should be across the grade levels, and based either on academic performance and ability as same ability groupings or mixed ability groupings.
It Takes a Village
The success of a multi-grade class is based on several aspects: the teacher, the student assignment, the curriculum, but also the support of administrators, principals, and other teachers. Once the theory and practice of planning and implementing lessons through differentiated instruction is attained, another obvious component is revealed. There must be support from the rest of the staff and administration. This support will help rectify scheduling difficulties that will arise. This will primarily occur when curriculum content must be taught on completely separate levels. Several options should be available to the multi-grade teacher. A support teacher may be the solution by coming in and teaching the lower grade core curriculum while the classroom teacher teaches the upper grade core curriculum. Team teaching and frequent collaboration with the support teachers and other teachers of the same grades is also necessary. Together, through collaboration and team teaching all students should benefit from the directed, yet intensive instruction delivered. The administration should also provide support through staff development appropriate for a multi-grade teacher. Administration support will observe, and then provide additional professional development as well as additional materials to assist the teacher. One more support necessary for multi-grade classes, is the parent or guardian. Many parents are confused about the logistics of a multi-grade classroom and fear it will neglect the individual needs of their child. Because guardian support is so important, it is necessary for all staff to maintain positive attitudes regarding the multi-grade classes.
We Are One
Attitude, attitude, attitude. The mindset from the very beginning should be a positive one. As the teacher is responsible for teaching lessons, the responsibility for classroom management is also necessary. One may have some success, but one out of many, can have great success. The attitude in the classroom should breathe a community, not two separate entities. When the teacher, staff, and principal establish the class as one whole, instead of two parts, through everyday conversation and reference, the students will realize it takes all of them to make the whole. Each student will demonstrate improvement in academics, social, and behavioral arenas.
You Want Me to Do What?!
Understanding the potential presented when given the opportunity to teach a multi-grade class can be overwhelming, due to the knowledge there will be frustration, scheduling issues, time constraints, and normal classroom challenges. But the reward of seeing every student have success because of opportunities to learn that may not been otherwise afforded to them far outweighs any personal discomfort for an established teacher. You want me to do what? I’ve been waiting for you to ask.
Mason, D. A. and Burns, R. B. (1997). Reassessing the effects of combination classes*.
Educational Research and Evaluation (3) 1, pp 1 – 53.
Mason, D. A. and Doepner III, R. W. (2001, January/February). Principals’ views of combination
classes. The Journal of Educational Research (91)3 pp 160 – 172.
Song, R., Spradlin, T. E., and Plucker, J. A. (2009, Winter). The Advantages and disadvantages of
multiage classrooms in the era of NCLB accountability. Education Policy Brief. Center for Evaluation & Educational Policy (7)1.